Gulfshore Playhouse brings Pulitzer winner’s ‘Invisible Hand’ to Naples

Money changes everything.

Tom Gray composed it. Cyndi Lauper recorded it.

Ayad Akhtar used it. Money is the plot fulcrum for his “The Invisible Hand,” opening Saturday at Gulfshore Playhouse. This play isn’t about a mom-and-pop company that comes into a fortune or the bitcoin speculator next door or the ne’er-do-well who strikes oil on his Texas property. It’s about a group of Pakistani ideologues who are presented the most dangerous weapon of all — the financial markets.

The drama is from the same playwright whose “The Who and the What” played at Gulfshore in 2016 and who wrote the best-seller “Homeland Elegies.” It was a top 10 choice for 2020 among nearly every major book reviewer in the U.S. Akhtar won a Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for another of his dramas, “Disgraced.”

“The Invisible Hand” refers to the Adam Smith economic theory that, simplified, declares everyone’s pursuit of self-interest will actually benefit the economy around them by the resulting interactions, bringing it into balance. One can judge how well that works by the changes that consume the play’s characters.

High-stakes stress heats their relationships. Imam Saleem needs money to help the communities his group advocates for, but he has found himself a semi-fugitive, on the U.S. official list of terrorists. Futures trader Nick Bright just longs to get out of Pakistan alive; the group has kidnapped him to make money the old-fashioned way — with a $10 million ransom. Bright’s captor, Bashir, is a quick student who wants to learn Bright’s financial manipulations and is willing to barter Bright’s freedom for his own market power. 

“It’s ironic, ” said Aby Moongamackel, who plays Bashir. “He’s always rallying against all that power and all that money, saying he’s helping all those people and, in the end, he becomes victim to it. It shows a universality in how people fall into the same traps.”

But he likes his character.

“Bashir is such a departure from the usual one-dimensional bad guy. He’s fully fleshed out like an anti-hero.  His whole arc in the play changes — it starts somewhere and it curves and ends somewhere else later on,” he continued. “The leader (Shaheem) is following that path, too, but in a different way. Everybody in the whole play has an arc.”

The curve of that arc isn’t only dictated by money, observed Kristen Coury, CEO and producing artistic director for the Playhouse, who is directing “The Invisible Hand.” She does see the powerful influence of the pocketbook at work, so much so that the careful listener will detect the sounds of money — ticker tape machines, ATM dispensers, the Wall Street bell —which Coury had filtered into its occasional music. But there are layers of motivators, she said. 

“I’m always interested in religion and geopolitics and other cultures. He, being a Pakistani-American, can shed light on situations that help us understand other cultures, other religions, other races. And his work does that, I think, in spades.”

“It’s interesting to me to see what militant groups feel is over the line and what isn’t over the line,” Coury continued, pointing to a scene in which Shaheem raids the futures fund to buy vaccines for children — and burns substantially into Nick’s income trajectory for it. “It’s fascinating, the morality — the degrees of morality. There’s so much in this little hour-and-a-half play to be experienced.”

Coury has heard the popular sentiment that people are looking for more froth in their live theater.

“But while we say that, then we go home and watch these serious dramas on TV,” she observed.  “The Invisible Hand,” Coury pointed out, operates like a prime-time TV suspense show such as “NCIS,” with its quick, short dramatic peaks within the larger story.  

“I love his work. I’m excited to be able to produce two of them,” she said.

Harriet Howard Heithaus, Naples Daily News

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